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State CIO Sets New Strategy

California's top I.T. executive wants to use technology to make government more accessible to citizens

Clark Kelso has a vision to makeCalifornia government more accessible to its citizenry. That's a tall order for the world's fifth-largest economy, especially considering that no one is certain what systems it owns and operates or how much the state spends on IT. One estimate: $2 billion to $4 billion a year.

Technology is critical to the state's government, Clark Kelso says.

Technology is critical to the state's government, Kelso says.
To get a better handle on its IT spending and inventory, Kelso, California's CIO, has been formulating since early last year the California State Information Technology Strategic Plan, which now awaits Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's approval. "We need to start changing the inefficient way we provide services, and technology is the mechanism we can use to transfer the performance of the delivery of services in the 21st century," Kelso says. "It's critical to get California government to start moving again."

The plan promotes six goals: make government services more accessible to citizens and businesses; implement common business applications and systems; secure state IT systems and protect privacy; lower costs and improve the security, reliability, and performance of the state IT infrastructure; develop the state IT workforce; and establish a technology governance structure.

Unlike most state CIOs, Kelso doesn't head an IT organization. California doesn't have a centralized IT department or an IT division within a cabinet agency. As CIO, Kelso is the governor's top IT adviser.

Government IT in California is more akin to that of the federal government than most other states because of California's size and decentralized government. Other than the governor and lieutenant governor, California has seven other elected statewide offices, as well as dozens of boards and commissions. With so many independently elected officers, it's all but impossible politically to centralize executive-branch IT within one entity.

The plan, for the most part, doesn't eliminate individual IT fiefdoms, but it does establish a governance structure in which CIOs and other managers from various departments and agencies collaborate on IT matters.

To get buy-in, Clark has been holding meetings with senior government leaders, including agency heads and their CIOs, to map out a strategic plan. "If you get everyone in a room together, that tends to reduce levels of stovepipe thinking, which reinforces their enterprise perspective," Kelso says.

Of the plan's six goals, Kelso considers developing a foundation for government services the most important. IT, he says, can help cut the bureaucracy citizens face in dealing with government, such as standing in long lines at the Department of Motor Vehicles and other agencies. Other key goals Kelso identifies: adopting common business systems among agencies and creating an enterprise architecture.

IT governance should be the No. 1 priority, says John Thomas Flynn, who served as California CIO for four years in the late 1990s. "To be successful, you've got to build on a foundation of strong governance," says Flynn, VP for advisory services at the Center for Digital Government, an IT advisory firm.

Still, all six goals are doable, Kelso says, because they're broken into short-term objectives that can be tackled in months, not years. That makes sense in addressing IT needs, since technology tends to evolve quickly. "It's rather hopeless to pretend to know where we'll be in 18 months," he says.

Even with more manageable objectives, Kelso's vision won't be easy to execute as he faces tough challenges such as getting agencies to agree on data standards. "It's very dicey," Kelso says, "not because agencies operate in silos and people want to protect their turf, but because people have legitimate business and money issues about adopting standards."

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